When Ilene Cameron first visited Boystown four years ago, she was hoping to find acceptance. What she got was a family.
The then-18-year-old had been living in a group home following a litany of family issues.
"My [biological] familythey're not very accepting of the fact I'm bisexual," Cameron said. "They call me names, make fun of me, say a lot of things that I really don't like. My mom calls me a faggot. I'm downright dirty to have a relationship with a guy and a girl. I'm stupid, and I shouldn't be part of the family."
A good friend told Cameron about Boystown, the city's LGBT-designated corridor, and promised to show her around. Cameron soon met dozens of youth just like her. Many identified as LGBT; some were homeless or precariously housed; still others had been disowned after coming out to their families.
For the first time in years, Cameron felt at home.
"I always felt very alone," she said. "I was in middle school and high school, and nobody liked me because I would always try out for the boys' teamsfootball, basketball. They used to judge me, make fun of me, for how I dressed and everything. I had nobody I could depend on. I'd go home to my mom or my foster parents, and I'd still get judged."
Before she knew it, the lifelong South Sider had built a 'chosen family' in Lakeviewdesignating certain friends as siblings, aunties or parents.
"They've been with me through my rough ageswhen I was drinking because I felt bad about my family. They helped me with a lot of things out here, took me into [their apartments] when I didn't have one… Out here, we're all respectful to each other. We count on one another. We don't argue that much. If someone gets hurt, we'll be at the hospital until they get better."
Cameron recalls hitting a rough patch about a year-and-a-half ago. She was just coming out of an abusive relationship and had suffered a miscarriage. Her health was poor, her asthma had been acting up, and though she has a GED, Cameron couldn't find work.
"Everybody came up with money so I could buy my inhaler, my iron pills and my vitamins," Cameron said. "They bought it for me and everything."
Cameron beams when talking about her chosen family, but says life can be tough in Lakeview.
"Mostly every night we have trouble with the police because some of the LGBTQ kids are homeless, and some of us don't really have bus fare to get on the trains," said Cameron, who lives in a West Side transitional housing program. "We help each other on trainsput our money together to buy bus fares."
She said police often stop her for no reason or harass young people near CTA stations, having made assumptions about whether the youth are riding legally.
It's also common, Cameron said, for Lakeview residents to make snide comments as they walk past her and her family.
"I just want [people] to know that we're all the same people," she said. "We might be a little bit different from you with our sexuality or whatever, but we're just the same. We go to school together. We're all in the same community. We ride the same bus, trains, everything. You shouldn't judge us for what we like, what we do or how we act."